February 21, 2016

Welcome, Year of the Monkey

Happy Year of the Monkey! Kung Hei Fat Choy! Xin nian kuai le!

The Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year (or LNY) is one of the biggest holidays  on  earth. It celebrates the new year beginning  on the lunar calendar and results in an insanely huge annual migration of humans  who are heading back to their hometowns for the holiday.

Victoria Park LNY Market

For me, it meant three days off from work and a good chance to start learning bits and pieces about the rituals behind it. LNY markets appeared all throughout the city, selling stunning flowers  and holiday decor.

Impossibly busy crowd in Mong  Kok
Orchid shopping at Victoria Park 

The Decorations

Orange bushes adorn every single entryway. Even in the far reaches of temples outside of fishing villages, one can find an orange bush. The Chinese word for mandarin oranges sounds like "good luck" when spoken and uses the character for "gold" when written. The bushes represent a good  luck and fortune in the year ahead.

The bushes are perfectly symmetrical and dripping with so much fruit it's almost unnatural. Thankfully my colleague had courage to ask the question all of the new gwailo's have been wondering: could the oranges be  eaten? Absolutely not. The local who answered her said that the bushes are sprayed with all sorts of chemicals to keep those oranges looking just right.

Aside from orange bushes, families also purchase pots of narcissus flowers, indicating the arrival of spring along with "five generation fruit" pyramids, which look like stacks of lemons with some extra nubbins growing out of them. The fruit are a symbol of generations within a family.

Door frames are adorned  with poetry on long red scrips of paper, wishing good health, fortune, and happiness. From what I gather, the poems have quite a bit of crafty wordplay that I can only sense by the generally awkward translations.

The biggest and most interesting  surprise of all of it to me was that I received lai see, or red pocket money. Bosses and married people hand out  red envelopes of money to ward off evil spirits for the year ahead.The envelopes are filled with crisp bills of varying denominations, but most commonly in HK it's a $20 or $10 HKD, which is $2-3 US.

In some parts of Asia, my old age would disqualify me for the red packets, but in Hong Kong, anyone who isn't married may receive red packet from married friends or colleagues. The packets are also given out by managers to their teams. I gave to my cleaning lady and my door guards. It's amazing how nice some of the door guards have been since I gave them lucky money. 

Nothing says "single in Hong Kong," quite like paying for meals--while dining alone--in brand new, fresh $20 bills. 

Many Chinese are quick to say that  the LNY is a lot like Christmas in the US, and up until this year I didn't quite understand the connection. But it's really true--both holidays are spent primarily with family, there are a several traditional decorations and foods involved, little kids anxiously a await gifts from grownups, and there is a palpable sense of festive excitement around. I'm happy to have spent my first LNY in Asia right here in Hong Kong. 

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